Jefe's House

News Flash: Theatre Really Can Change Lives

by on Oct.07, 2010, under Politics, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

Despite my deep passion for theatre I’ve often quoted the cynical aphorism, Theatre changes nothing, but at least it changes that, and I have believed it to be true.

I stand corrected thanks to the new book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre by Jonathan Shailor (Kingsley Press, 2010) about 14 prison theater programs.  The chapter “Drama in the Big House” was penned by my good friend Brent Buell, a director, actor and writer who has volunteered for more than a decade for Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a division of Prison Communities International, directing plays and teaching acting classes to inmates.  Brent’s locus in the New York State prison system is the original Big House, Sing Sing state penitentiary in Ossining, NY.

I first met Brent in 2004 through our mutual friend David Gaynes and took my first trip via Metro-North train from Manhattan,  zooming along the Hudson to the Big House to see the inmates’ production of Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code, a farce written and directed by Brent (a photo from that production adorns the book’s cover).    I returned the next year to see the bold satire The N Trial, a meditation on the uses of the dreaded “N-word” in our society, including within prison walls, written by inmate Philip Hall, who was wrapping up a 20 year sentence.

Such productions of a full-length play performed for the general public have become an annual event at Sing Sing.  The cast and crew are primarily inmates, co-mingled with professional actors and crew who volunteer their time through RTA. These world premieres run one night and one night only, and are performed under tight security on a stage in the prison chapel sequestered deep within the  compound. Audience members must RSVP well in advance and are also put through a security check.  Despite the hurdles, the shows are usually sellouts.

Scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, directed by Joanna Chan. (L–R standing) Gerald O’Brien, Shepard Jackson, James E. Williams, Brian LaBrosse, Jermaine Cross, Richard Valle, Clarence Maclin. (L–R seated) Eric Glisson, Patrick Gadson, Dario Pena, James Jones, Charles Grosso.

US prisons are pretty much the same inside, and entering Sing Sing the first time, waiting in line, passing through the security check, getting photographed, getting my hand stamped with ultraviolet ink, passing through the family visitation room, past vending machines, outside to picnic tables under a shelter, and into a waiting bus that took us deeper into the complex, brought back a flood of memories from my late childhood and early teen years when a close relative did a little — no, did a lotta — time in lockups across Virginia ranging from podunk county jails to state pens.  I know from direct observation the toll crime takes on families, both the victims’ and the perpetrators’, and how hard it is to get back on the right path once the world has given up on you.

Charles S. Dutton as Boy Willie in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson.

RTA had it’s first New York City performance, From Sing Sing to Broadway – An Evening Without Walls, in 2006, which featured a special guest performance by the great Charles S. Dutton, himself a former inmate who discovered theatre while serving time in a Maryland prison.  I returned to Sing Sing in 2009 to see RTA’s production of Macbeth which was absolutely awe-inspiring, and a bold choice given that its titular protagonist solves his problems by committing multiple homicides (but in the end justice prevails, mind you).  Likewise RTA embarked on productions of jury room drama 12 Angry Men and its first musical production, West Side Story, which is about, among other things, gang violence.

Despite their therapeutic value, programs like RTA have their detractors. One can understand why the grieving family of a murder, rape or battery victim might be outraged by what appears to be the coddling of violent criminals.  This creep who beat my brother to death is getting free meals and free college and free acting classes?  Where the fuck are my family’s free meals and free college and free acting classes?

Still, the fact remains that 95% of inmates do get out of prison eventually, and they become our neighbors, our coworkers, the strangers sitting next to us on the subway.  Speaking for myself, I want everything done to try and rehabilitate prisoners rather having them released back into my community as ticking time bombs, or better trained criminals than they were when they went inside.  Also, some of these guys have been given sentences that seem absurdly long to me given their crimes, like Dino Johnson, the RTA alum who had to serve 15 years of a 15-to-life sentence for cocaine possession, or Joseph Thomas, who got 12-to-life for robbery. Not all of these guys have such rosy records though, as evidenced by the 2005 NPR interview with the cast of Mummy in which we meet inmate Kelly Watts who’s doing hard time for indeed beating a young man to death, but who has also earned a Masters degree in theology while incarcerated, developed a love of theatre, and appears to be fully rehabilitated.

Thankfully, RTA has statistics on its side:  two outside studies have shown hands down that the program helps inmates with anger management, improves coping skills, and encourages them to finish their formal educations. Further, RTA insists that its own tracking of its alums shows that over 90% of the men who were in the program for at least 1 year before their release have stayed out of jail, as compared to a national average of only 33% of ex-cons who keep their noses clean.  Put differently, only 10% of RTA’s alums have returned to the Big House whereas as 67% of inmates nationwide end up back in the joint.

RTA is by no means alone. Similar programs exist across the country, like the Prison Creative Arts Project based at the University of Michigan, and around the world, like at the Presidency Correctional Home in Kolkata, India.

Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre is available here for $37.95.

[photos via, Brent Buell and]


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1 Comment for this entry

  • Brent

    I have read Jeff’s article with great pleasure. And I’m happy to report that good news continues. Dino Johnson is home and is working with the Council for Reconcilliation–helping to end gang violence.

    Kelly Watts is home and is a Workforce Development Instructor for the Osbourne Foundation. We even had the privilege of working together on a film I was directing.

    We have all made mistakes in life. I for one, would never want to be forever named and judged for my lowest moment. And yet, so often, we continue to refer to individuals by the “name” of their mistake. I’m so glad to see first-hand all the time that people are not their mistakes–they are the men and women that they are TODAY.

    For speaking engagements about “Performing New Lives” please email